Ten Districts, Many Visions
Candidates building the road to 10-1 work to define Austin's new civic order
District 1: Race Matters
In the new City Council District 1, one issue – both spoken and unspoken – is a subtext of many of the political conversations. That issue is race. This the sole district drawn, by the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, to provide voters an "African-American Opportunity" – that is, black voters could be decisive in choosing the eventual Council representative. However, it's a precarious status, because using 2010 census numbers, district Hispanic residents (43%) actually outnumber African-Americans (28%), although blacks historically vote in higher numbers. But the difficulty of drawing a predominantly African-American district despite a declining African-American population initially caused some black leaders to oppose single-member districting. Notably, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole only changed her mind when the growing public sentiment for districting became too strong to ignore.
Four of the nine D1 candidates are African-American: Michael Cargill, Ora Houston, DeWayne Lofton, and Sam Osemene. Because of name ID alone, Houston and Lofton are arguably the frontrunners. Both acknowledge it will take coalition voting for an African-American candidate to succeed, and in their campaigns both have emphasized that making neighborhood and community connections is essential to the success of any candidate. In a recent interview, Houston noted the particular historical context of central East Austin (which anchors the district), and said that "a person of African descent" is particularly well-equipped to represent and speak about that history. She cited her own upbringing in segregated Austin schools, and her sense that despite undeniable social progress, "brown and black people continue to feel disrespected and disenfranchised."
Lofton noted that this is demographically the "most diverse" of all the districts, necessitating a candidate who can represent that diversity. He also acknowledged, nevertheless, that he hears from some black voters that they resent a district slate in which the majority of candidates are not African-American – and simultaneously a gratified response that qualified black candidates are running in other districts. He also reiterated a subject raised in recent forums – that most of the police shootings of minority residents have occurred within D1 boundaries. It's "a huge issue," he said, "a [police] culture issue," and it won't be resolved until the "us vs. them" culture is changed among law enforcement officers. (Lofton, employed by the Texas Association of School Boards, also serves as a senior deputy with the Travis County Sheriff's Office.)
Andrew Bucknall is not African-American, but cites his prominent black supporters as well as his deep roots in East Austin as giving him a "personal connection" to D1. He suggested that purely racial politics reflect the "mindset" of the older generation – black and white – and that racial distinctions are less important to younger voters. But he has also spoken eloquently against the racial profiling of young black men, partly as an argument for "community-based policing." "We have to see each other as humans," he said, adding that whoever represents the district must have "a consensus approach" and "advocate for all of these groups" in the district.
Beyond declaring "I am diversity" – as a gay, black, Republican – Cargill has not made race a campaign issue; his refrain is "traffic, traffic, traffic." But he does recount his personal story of being profiled by a traffic cop when he first moved to town: "He called to confirm that I had in fact rented the vehicle I was driving." Osemene, while acknowledging "there are some racists in Austin," rejected sharply Houston's insistence that despite its liberal image, "The city of Austin is very racist."
One candidate, Valerie Menard, puts yet another spin on the racial subtext – she says her run is partly a test of the district's African-American definition. "The district is very diverse," she said, "but we need to embrace the growth of the Latino community." Certain issues – she noted the increasing importance of opposing the Travis Co. Sheriff's "Secure Communities" policy – are of particular importance to Hispanic residents. She also described her own, "Do-It-Yourself" campaign as particularly "in the spirit of SMDs [Single-Member Districts]," adding, "That's the point of it – to give everyone a chance."
Whoever is the eventual winner in D1 – and a December run-off is likely – the district's racial subtext is likely to remain relevant.
D1 Ballot Order
Norman A. Jacobson